mystery play



  • The most important form of medieval European drama. Unlikethe early liturgical drama, from which it developed, themystery play was written in the vernacular, spoken rather than sung,and performed out of doors. Although the subject matter remained exclusivelybiblical, the plays also featured an element of coarse humour thatprobably derived from the folk theater. The individual plays wereorganized into lengthy cycles covering the whole of history from theCreation to the Day of Judgment. These would be presented over a periodof one or more days. The most important mystery cycles in Englandincluded those performed at Chester, Lincoln, Wakefield, and York.

    In the later 14th century the plays were performed by members of tradeor craft guilds, each of which undertook an episode relevant to their calling,so that the carpenters, for instance, presented the story of Noah's Ark whilethe fishmongers played Jonah and the Whale. On this basis it is often stated,quite erroneously, that the name 'mystery play' has no reference to thereligious subject matter but comes from the Middle English word misteri,meaning a trade or skill. The plays were usually performed on converted wagonsknown as pageants. In England the term mystery play is often usedinterchangeably with miracle play, although some have argued thatthe latter was a distinct genre dealing with the lives of the saints. Anothername is Corpus Christi play, because the dramas were generallyperformed during the feast of Corpus Christi, which falls in May or June. TheContinental equivalents to the English mystery play included the GermanMysterienspiel, the French mystère, the Spanish autosacramental, and the Italian sacra rappresentazione. see alsomedieval drama.